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Test Drive: Škoda Rapid Spaceback Elegance StylePLUS 1.2 TSI 105LE

17/03/2014 10:57 | Comments: 

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Self-appointed race-driver (whenever he gets a chance), avid car sports- and sports car-lover, manager of the mother site’s blog, Belsőség, he can always be found in the middle of the noisiest gathering. Steve has had a long-running habit of remodelling his facial hair bi-weekly. A Slovakian citizen but of Hungarian nationality, he lives in Budapest now. Has a wife, two small children and a dog.

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The five-door Škoda Rapid - a.k.a. Spaceback - is yet again a case study in playing it right down the middle. Take the Octavia: it is slightly larger than the Golf, but not quite as large as the Passat. Or the Superb, an oversized Passat with slightly lower quality and specifications. The Rapid, then, is larger than the Polo, and is positioned under the Golf, both in price and quality.

The Rapid is not built on the newest MQB wonder-platform; instead they used a slightly extended version of the perfectly suitable and significantly cheaper PQ25 platform, the foundation the Fabia and the Polo are built upon. Up front they used the suspension from the Fabia; the rear chassis comes from the Roomster. This is fundamentally standard VW-Group small car technology all around, then. This means two things: any Škoda workshop can fix the car without hickups; but also, the engineering content is about as innovative and thrilling as an Enya tribute album.

The Rapid is sized up to the Golf (4304 mm in length, as opposed to 4255 for the VW) but the Spaceback plays a dirty trick to achieve this: it's shape is closer to a wagon than a proper hatchback. This format is a relatively novel contraption, pioneered in this segment by the Renault Clio Grandtour. Instead of the visually separated boot area and sizeable overhang typical of wagons, it looks more like an expanded five-door hatchback. While it may look strange, it does have its advantages, such as giving designer the freedom because they are not bound by the conventions of wagons.

This may be the reason these mules look attractive. The Clio Grandtour is cute, but the Rapid Spaceback is downright excellent. I probably wouldn't be nearly this ecstatic without the striking red paintjob, the black panoramic roof, the tinted rear window and the black roof spoiler. With a car looking like this it does not take much PR BS to believe that the Rapid is indeed the ideal car for young families. That is, in countries with a slightly better car-price-to-income ratio than here on the Eastern fringes of the EU.

Some friends with a true artistic touch have also commended the good looks of the car, so I guess it's not just me who likes it. It looks good from almost any angle, it has great proportions; the large wheelbase (2602 mm) has pushed the wheels way out to the corners. There is a serious promise of spaciousness in the air, only shattered when you look the car in the eye, and realise it's like the horse from Jingle Bells - lean and lank. The Rapid not only looks narrow, it also feels narrow. Overall width is a mere 1706 mm (without wing mirrors), a full 3 cm's narrower than the otherwise smaller Clio Grandtour.

Elbow room up front is 1418-1428 mm, depending on specifications. This does not sound bad but elbows are one thing, and shoulders are another, especially because modern cars tend to have tapering side walls, resulting in a measly 1014-980 mm at head level. It's enough for your noggins but certainly not for the shoulders they sit on. In fact, rubbing shoulders is the order of the day in this car, even if you are not a body building giant. I know because I have, and I am not.

The seats themselves are on the narrower side, but what really gives the space deficit away is that if you install a Group 1-2-3 child seat (9-36 kg) you need to dig deep under the seat to buckle the belt.

Reinterpreting space - that's what it says on the marketing stickers covering the car. And they are right, because the Spaceback manages to be spacious and cramped at the same time. It is a car for daddy longlegs because there is lots of room along the longitudinal axis. Your knees are all comfortable up front, although seat cushions hug your thighs tightly. Seats are on the firm side, you can easily drive for 3 to 4 hours without growing numb, which is the longest I drove the car in one stretch.

The Rapid Spaceback is priced from around €10,500, and that means even a high spec version like our car – costing more like €17,000 – would not feel that much more expensive. Materials and shapes don't change as you upgrade, and while they are fine for €10K you would expect far higher quality for the price of a Golf.

The Rapid is conceived as a budget sedan, positioned somewhere along the Citroen C-Elysée- Peugeot 301- Renault Fluence line. No wonder, then that materials are cheap, sort of recycled-yoghurt-container cheap. Fit is great, though, so is ergonomics. One flaw I noticed is where the front armrest blocks the way for the handbrake lever.

The luggage compartment is generous. At 415 litres, it is certainly above average for size, and it also comes with a double-deck floor and a wide opening with a low sill; the boot can swallow six human torsos with ease. As an aside: the rear hatch is somewhat heavy because of the oversized rear windscreen. The rear seatbacks are split but are not adjustable for recline. Cargo space maxes out at 1380 litres, and the floor is not fully flat.

Our car was Elegance Style Plus specification and came with plenty of high value extras installed, including Climatronic automatic A/C, panoramic sunroof, large colour touchscreen in the centre console, satnav, four powered windows (but only the driver's window has one touch control), USB port and pretty much everything else you'd expect of a fully loaded small budget car.

Saying controls look familiar is an understatement - if you have seen a Škoda in the last eight years or so you can find your way around the Spaceback right away. We have always liked this touch screen control panel but this time it was the satnav that took all the praise. Dubbed Amundsen, it's straightforward to use, quick to search for entries and swift to give us guidance. If you say this is industry standard you have clearly not seen TomTom units with their clumsy and overplayed user interface.

The radio hunts and locks down on frequencies with authority but the sound quality is not much better than in a cleared out garage (I know because I used to play in one). I liked how I could browse the USB library as I pleased, as opposed to Toyota systems, among others, which seem to have their own peculiar way of arranging your files.

As you spend time with the Spaceback you realise there is only thing keeping the car from being an optimally sized, convenient motor vehicle, and that's the impossibly narrow shoulder room. Visibility is great; you can see all four corners from the driver's seat. Parking is a breeze, and controls are a child play in this world of smartphones.

The 105 PS 1.2 TSI is your first viable choice if you want to have the option of actually loading up the car and going places. Neither the 75 PS atmospheric 1.2-litre engine nor the smaller, 86 PS TSI are what you'd call powerful; you need the 105 horses to feel alive. Also, it is a four banger, something readily appreciated by anyone who's driven one of those three-cylinder engines gaining foothold these days. That extra cylinder makes things quieter, more pleasant and generally more bearable, as you get away without the metallic screech typical of three-pot engines at higher speeds.

Of course 105 PS won't give you goose bumps either but with the well-spaced six-speed manual gearbox it makes everyday drives as pleasant as you can expect. Funnily enough this Škoda 'box feels better in every respect than the corresponding unit in, say, an Audi A3.

Suspension is firm, as typical of cars with German associations. It is quiet over rough roads, and composed when striding over manholes, even though the 17" wheels are certainly not ideal for these Eastern European roads. Driving the car on one of the lousiest stretches of Budapest, the Škoda did just fine, although it would have fared better on higher profile tyres.

The engine is eager to rev but runs all out of breath at 2000 rpm. Give it a bit of time, though, and it starts anew as the turbocharger powers up, only to come to a definitive halt at around 4000 rpm. Time to shift up and start surfing the torque again - city driving feels like a rollercoaster ride.

This, as well as mounting issues with downsized turbo engines, would steer me towards the excellent 1.6 TDI which drives just as well, is easier to live with, and has better mileage. A lot better.

Fuel economy was 7.3 l/100 on the combined meter, more like 7.5 based on what I paid at the pump - this is more than I would have preferred as I was riding alone most of the time. I put a lot of city miles into this, but of course there was also a 700 km family outing at 130 kph on the highway. The 1.6 TDI would need two litres less, or even better.

With all extras checked and all discounts applied, our test car weighed in at €17,300 and that's a hefty sum if you are in the market for a budget family all-rounder. This sum includes Elegance specification, as well as two 'Style' packages and another €1600 worth of various extras including parking sensors, multifunction steering wheels and such. Too bad you need to fork out €45 for storage compartments.

Is the Rapid Spaceback worth this kind of money? That's the wrong question to ask - the real question is, will anyone ever buy this car in this configuration? The shape is right, it also comes in an optional waspy black-yellow paintjob, and Škoda is actually a valued brand name these days. But it's difficult to say if the winged warrior head on the bonnet will look attractive enough for hipsters and other young customers.

My guess is this car is aimed at fleet customers, at least locally, rather than those Gen Y'ers. Cars are easily discounted for fleets and the entry level Rapid is a fleet-friendly no-nonsense uber-budget version. As for private customers it all comes down to making sure they visit a Škoda dealership before a competitor's showroom, because frankly, it is a lot easier to sell the fully loaded Renault Fluence for €13K or the Citroen C-Elysée priced at €13,700

The Rapid Spaceback is a highly decent product that is priced over its competition. Sure, Škoda is offering amazing discounts such as €3 equipment packs or up to €2000 off the sticker price, depending on the engine. But that's not really noteworthy, as everyone offers heavy discounts these days.

The way things are now, comparably spec'd competitors beat Škoda on price, allowing you to save €1300 or more, so it's fleet or bust for the Rapid.

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